Sequels often have the well earned reputation of being more of the same, rarely treading new ground while instead opting for something stagnant. Mafia 3 goes in the opposite direction, shifting its focus from a Godfather inspired crime story about a grunt’s rise through the ranks of organized crime, to a man’s quest for revenge against the Italian mob for killing those he called family. As a former member of the black mob in 1968 New Bordeaux, (a not so subtle take on New Orleans), Lincoln Clay has more than just criminals, assassins and the most ruthless bosses the city has ever seen. He also has to deal with the horrors of segregation, institutionalized racism, and a section of the city that sees him as less than human based on his skin color.
Mafia 3‘s setting, story and acting are some of the finest I’ve ever seen in a game, with an amazing soundtrack that places you right in the era. But more than any game I can think of, it does its best to take full advantage of the interactive medium, placing us in an ugly period of American history and making us feel the anxiety of what it means to be an “other” in such a hostile environment. Yes, the game pales in comparison to the feeling in real life, but being put in the shoes of a character going through these experiences was eye opening as I pushed through this tale of vengence. Traversing black neighborhoods leads to people greeting you and wishing you well, while whispers of what that “boy” is doing here can be heard from the NPC’s in the white neighborhoods. Missions that require you to enter certain buildings that are marked as “Whites Only” will lead to the police being called to attack and arrest you in the same way as being caught fighting or shooting would. Committing crimes in white neighborhoods will also result in the cops responding much faster and aggressively, while they might not even show in the bayous occupied by the poor black citizens. Encounters with the KKK, underground “jungle fights” where whites gamble on black men fighting, and the justification of murdering black men via talk radio segments round out everything you need to know about the world Mafia 3 creates, which is one I’ve never come close to encountering before.
To top off the period piece that the game works towards being, the story is framed as a documentary. Cutscenes flash back and forth between present day versions of characters you interact with in the main game explaining the events you’re about to play, and playing as Lincoln carrying these events out. Whether or not he ends up as a savior or a monster depends on your choices towards the end, but every twist and turn that takes place justifies each possibility. Each character feels like they could have been a real person, adding gravitas to the events that create your story. This leaves us with the most unforgettable campaign I’ve ever played, possibly ranking as my favorite narrative after 25 years of gaming.
But the real tragedy comes with the fact that despite the top notch presentation, the meticulously crafted recreation of 1968 as a black male, the expert voice acting and its overall uniqueness, Mafia 3 isn’t a very good game. Missions are repetitive, essentially filling its 30 hour play time with the same six or so missions repeatedly. The amount of bugs I came across were appalling, which ranged from enemies getting stuck in the environment to my map becoming a giant white line and textures completely vanishing. I also don’t think I got through more than two hours at a time without the game completely crashing, kicking me back to the Xbox One home menu before having to sit through the very long initial load screen. The AI is as dumb as it can get, with stealth missions dominating the game when patrolling guards will literally line up to “investigate” the guy who was stabbed two feet in front of them, only to walk into a knife in the throat. Lather, rinse and repeat. That’s Mafia 3.
And you know what? That’s horrible. Because everything that was so great about the game deserves better than what essentially amounts to an even glitches and more drawn out retread of the original Assassin’s Creed. So I’m not going to dance around the issue. Mafia 3 is one of the worst high profile games of the year from a pure game play standpoint. It feels unfinished, clearly needing a few more months to add more content and fix up the technical issues. If you’ve read my previous reviews, editorials and lists, you know that game play is what matters most to me, since without that, the story might as well have been a movie. But despite these issues, I urge anyone reading this to give the game a chance anyway, even if you put it down long before the credits roll. Running around New Bourdeax alone is worth your time. Even outside of the main story, moving around in this environment is a truly valuable form of interactivity in a way that no other game before, which I hope starts a trend for designers to use games to help us visit more realistic depictions of our history.
It’s just tragic that the first game of its kind has to play so bad.